Princes and Priests

Priests and Princes

John A. Tvedtnes

Moses Aaron Priesthood MormonThough the term “priest” usually denotes a religious office, there are instances where it refers to a political office. Even after Alma1 became high priest in the city of Zarahemla and had ordained other priests (Mosiah 25:19-21; 26:7-8), King Mosiah still kept at court a cadre of “priests” to counsel him. “And Mosiah consulted with his priests” (Mosiah 27:1).[1] In the city of Lehi-Nephi, wicked King Noah deposed the “priests” who had been appointed by his father Zeniff and replaced them with his own “priests,” of whom Alma was one (Mosiah 11:4-8). Though they were charged with teaching religious principles from the law of Moses (Mosiah 12:25-3), these priests were supported from the taxes the king imposed on his people (Mosiah 11:1-14; 21:30).

These royal priests, like the priests who served under Israelite kings such as David and Solomon, controlled the temple, over which the king himself seems to have presided. In the Old Testament, these temple priests are often listed with other public officials, such as military leaders, the royal treasurer, and the royal scribe.[2] Indeed, in the time of Nehemiah, governor of Judea, priests served in the positions of treasurer and scribe; Nehemiah 13:13. In Hebrew, such officials were called sarim, most often translated “princes” in the King James version (KJV) of the Bible, though the title was not one of royalty.[3]

In 2 Samuel 8:18, we read that “David’s sons were chief rulers,” but the Hebrew term used is actually kohanim, which means “priests.”[4] It is likely that the king’s sons held political positions and, except for Solomon (who dedicated the temple), did not serve in what we would ordinarily consider priestly functions.[5] The Nephite royal priests seemed to have served a dual function, but were principally involved in political affairs. In some cases, the Nephite high priest (Alma2, Helaman2, and Nephi2) also served as chief judge and governor of the people.

[1] For a discussion of Nephite political culture, see “The Political Economy of the Nephites,” in John L. Sorenson, Nephite Culture and Society: Selected Papers (Salt Lake City: New Sage Books, 1997).

[2] 2 Samuel 8:15-18; 20:23-26; 1 Kings 4:1-7; 2 Kings 12:10; 19:2; 22:8-12; 1 Chronicles 18:14-17; 23:1-2; 24:3-6; 28:20-21; 2 Chronicles 24:11; 34:12-21; Isaiah 37:2; Jeremiah 2:26;. 4:9; 8:1; 32:32; 48:7; 49:3.

[3] For a discussion, see “The Elders at Jerusalem in the Days of Lehi,” chapter 9 in John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999; later reissued by Horizon).

[4] Though Jethro is termed “priest of Midian” (Exodus 2:16; 3:1; 18:1), some early Aramaic translations (Targum Neofiti, Targum Onkelos, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan) and other early texts call him “lord” or “ruler.” Ezekiel the Tragedian, has Jethro’s daughter Zipporah telling Moses that her father was a priest, judge, king, and military leader of his people, while Muslim and Druze traditions hold that he was a prophet. From D&C 84:6, we learn that it was Jethro who ordained Moses to the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.

[5] In ancient Israel, the king presided at the celebration of the feast of tabernacles, held at the temple. See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in John M. Lundquist & Stephen D. Ricks (eds.), By Study and Also by Faith, Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990).